from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

If the United States Steps Back, Can Innovative Global Governance Step Forward?

A representative of indigenous Peruvian people attends the World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Le Bourget, France, on December 1, 2015. Stephane Mahe/Reuters

September 20, 2017

A representative of indigenous Peruvian people attends the World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Le Bourget, France, on December 1, 2015. Stephane Mahe/Reuters
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The following is a guest post by Deborah Avant, director of the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy, Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver; Miles Kahler, senior fellow for global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Jason Pielemeier, policy director of the Global Network Initiative.

Global governance was once defined as the province of multilateral organizations, whose membership was limited to national governments. For many citizens and policymakers, whether those institutions are viewed with hope or distrust, organizations such as the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund remain the center of attention and the targets of activists. Over the last three decades, however, private corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and subnational (state, provincial, and urban) governments have moved from influencing global rules and organizations through their national governments to direct participation in global governance, often working with national governments as partners in innovation.

These innovative arrangements have different labels and include different combinations of actors. In some of these creative multilateral organizations or multistakeholder initiatives, such as the Community of Democracies, civil society organizations team with government representatives to move forward when more-formal processes are likely to be stalled or cumbersome. In other cases, exemplified by the International Code of Conduct Association, a wider array of stakeholders, including both businesses and NGOs, ally with governments to promote standards within particular sectors. In yet other instances, private groups—both NGO and corporate—engineer cooperation without governments. The Global Network Initiative is a case in point. These initiatives press for new international agenda items, develop standards, monitor the behavior of both governments and nongovernmental actors, and police those standards through peer pressure and reputational effects. 

This stealth multilateralism is often discounted as softer or weaker than more legally binding collaboration among national governments. As the international political environment shifts, however, these arrangements could prove to be more than temporary or second-best alternatives. Populist and nationalist movements, exerting influence in many industrialized countries, have called into question international cooperation in its more conventional, intergovernmental forms. These less formal collaborative institutions, often representing a broad coalition of governments and nongovernmental partners, could provide greater resilience in an uncertain environment.    

A workshop sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program brought together researchers and practitioners representing four issue areas that are rapidly rising on the global agenda: peacebuilding, human rights, cyber, and climate change. This expert group charted governance arrangements that have emerged in each issue area and assessed their effectiveness and durability in the face of global and domestic political change. Similarities emerged, particularly the ubiquity of these innovative forms of governance. Differences were also prominent. Where funding or enforcement by national governments was most significant, for instance in peacebuilding and some areas of human rights, new modes of governance demonstrated less potency and had less ability to fill gaps in governance if national governments stepped back. If national governments had traditionally delegated authority to nongovernmental actors and institutions (cyber) or deadlocked in reaching formal agreements (climate), however, these governance innovations had strengthened and could have greater potential to substitute, at least in part, for state-led governance.

Although the process may be incremental and difficult for those advocating international collaboration on these issues, nationalist foreign policies and reduced commitment by governments could engender greater activism on the part of corporations, NGOs, and individual citizens, as well as governments that are more comfortable and adept at mobilizing these diverse coalitions. As Apple’s Tim Cook put it recently: “The reality is that government, for a long period of time, has for whatever set of reasons become less functional and isn’t working at the speed that it once was. And so it does fall, I think, not just on business but on all other areas of society to step up.” As they do, the governance innovations that they create and sustain will only increase.

Eight researchers and practitioners produced memos that guided the discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations workshop on “Innovations in Global Governance” and have informed this post. You can find the complete memo series here.

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